Our practice group focuses on the swordsmanship of 16th-century Bologna. We practice exclusively with the single-handed sword, with or without an off-hand buckler, dagger, or cape. The art we practice evolved in a common technical and conceptual milieu with other Italian martial arts of the 16th century, and in a continuum with those of the 15th and 17th centuries Thus the Bolognese school can serve as a link among distinctly different eras in Italian swordsmanship.
Bolognese swordsmanship represents a unique period in the history of martial arts. The 16th century was a sea change in the history of European swordsmanship. As firearms transformed the military, so too did the printing press transform European intellectual life. Both of those trends express themselves in the Bolognese school of swordsmanship, one of the first arts in a new era of civilian swordplay.
Our Bolognese texts were published in the middle of a massive boom in European martial arts treatises, largely written for a new audience. The swordsmanship they describe was not designed for the needs of professional soldiers, but rather for the emerging literate professional middle class, many of whom sought to emulate the martial customs of the upper classes. Civilians of this time and era were expected to know how to use their sidearms in a variety of contexts, from civil self-defense to duels, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, all at a time when it was common for a citizen to carry a sword in public. They trained in the art of arms not in barracks or royal courts but in commercial swordsmanship schools. One group of schools, based in Bologna in the early 16th century, preserved their teachings rather thoroughly across multiple related texts. We now refer to this as the Bolognese school of swordsmanship.
Although our group focuses on swordsmanship, our Bolognese authors wrote about other weapons as well. Bolognese sources depict a number of weapons, some more common on the battlefield, like the large two-handed sword and various polearms, and others that were more ubiquitous, such as the single-handed sword and the dagger. Bolognese sources are renowned for their use of off-hand bucklers, daggers, capes, and other accoutrements.
The swords we use are not strictly defined in terms of their shape or nomenclature. The single-handed sword underwent many changes from around the 15th century onward, adding additional hand protection beyond the simple cruciform guards of late medieval arming swords. Some of these swords had broader blades very well-suited to cutting, others that were narrower and more optimized for thrusting, and everywhere in between. Modern practitioners tend to call these weapons “side swords” to differentiate them from both medieval arming swords and longer, even more civilian-oriented rapiers of the 17th century; however, this distinction did not exist at the time that these weapons were used. “Arming sword,” “side sword,” and “rapier” are all equally accurate and inaccurate terms to describe the weapon that we train with, the contexts in which it was used, and the techniques commonly used with it.
Sources and Methodology
Our practice group draws from techniques across all of the core Bolognese authors: Antonio Manciolino (1531), Achille Marozzo (1536), Giovanni dall’Agocchie (1572) and the Anonimo Bolognese (sometime in the 16th century). These sources are unusual in the European martial tradition in that most of them include choreographed forms meant to be memorized. These forms are called assalti (singular assalto, “assault”) when referring to using practice/blunt swords for the salle, and abattimenti (singular abattimento, “combat”) when a sharp weapon is implied.
While we are interested in martially-applicable techniques, our focus is on the faithful recreation of the style of fencing described in the historical Bolognese treatises, not necessarily what is most practical, nor what works in another system.
What to Expect
We are open to anyone interested in practicing 16th-century fencing, regardless of experience or fitness/ability level. It is our goal that every participant leave practice healthier than when they arrived. Please tell a coach (and training partners if appropriate) if you have any injuries or conditions that may affect your safety or that of your training partners, so we can modify drills or activities as necessary.
We do not currently do any free-play/sparring, beyond controlled tactical drills. Practices typically focus on a combination of the following:
- Fundamentals / theory – basic components such as footwork, guards, cutting, parries; basic terminology and actions (the Bolognese school has many postures or “guards” and many attacks and defenses, all which have different names; it is a challenging system to learn, terminology-wise!)
- Body mechanics
- Technique drills/plays – short sequences taken directly from the texts, used to practice various attacks, defenses, and counterattacks
- Tactical drills – practicing doing the right thing at the right time
- Forms – learning and practicing the sequences called assalti and abattimenti
- Interpretation – compared to Fiore longsword or 17th-century Italian rapier (for example), there is relatively little modern secondary/”how-to” material for the Bolognese system, so we may spend some time experimenting and determining the nature of actions described in the text and how to make them work.
This is not a typical martial arts class. We are a practice group. The group exists so that self-motivated students can find practice partners. No one here claims to be an expert. Nevertheless, we provide instruction based firmly upon textual sources, and our practice time is very structured. We place a profound emphasis on performing actions with precision and self-control, in order to acquire proper technique and to minimize the risk of injury to our training partners. This class will not be appropriate for all students, but only you can say whether it is right for you.
- An Introduction to the Fundamentals of Bolognese Swordsmanship – Steven Reich
- Antonio Manciolino’s Opera Nova – Tom Leoni (trans.)
- Achille Marozzo’s Opera Nova – Jherek Swanger (trans.)
- Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s Dell’Arte di Scrimia – Jherek Swanger (trans.)